Feminist economics posts

The Conundrum of Women’s Economic Empowerment in MENA

Thanks in large part to Nelson Mandela, the world came to understand the malice of apartheid. But alas, economic apartheid in South Africa remains neither understood nor close to being resolved. The country continues to be divided into the “haves” and “have nots.” Ironically, but not surprisingly, the division falls along the same racial lines as those in the apartheid years, but South Africa is not unique. Much of the world suffers from economic apartheid and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region the factor that defines poverty is often gender.

With the awarding of the first Nobel Peace Prize to an Arab woman in 2011, (awarded to Tawakkol Abdel-Salam, the Yemini civil-rights activist and leader of Women Journalists Without Chains) the world recognized the struggle for democracy in the MENA region. But an equally hard and important battle is the battle for economic justice and socioeconomic rights for women.

Such economic justice seems more difficult to achieve than ever. Overall poverty in the MENA region is on the rise, partly due to cuts in social welfare programs that started long before the Arab Uprising. The situation is even worse for women because the region has the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world and the highest ratio of female-to-male unemployment rates. The latest data show that, in Egypt, a quarter of women seeking employment are unemployed (compared to 9.8 percent of men) and the unemployment rate has increased consistently while the labor force participation rate has declined (World Development Indicators).

Percent of Labor Force (Male and Female) to Year

Percent of Labor Force (Male and Female) to Year

Through my research in poor urban neighborhoods in the region over the past decade, I witnessed women’s daily struggles to make ends meet. To my mind, access to the economic basic of a good job is the real issue in the MENA region. Yet from what I see and hear in western media, wearing the veil is the only “problem” women face.

Not true. Millions of women in low-income households are engulfed in a daily clash of numbers; their incomes and wages do not match their expenses. The global market dictates prices for basic goods, while wages remain at national levels. In countries where social welfare programs have disappeared, women’s unemployment and labor force participation rates have taken a turn for the worse.

Fortunately, policymakers are beginning to take notice. In 2013, in an effort to seek solutions to the above challenges, the Cairo-based Economic Research Forum (ERF) announced a call for proposals to further women’s economic empowerment in the MENA region. The ERF followed up with a workshop, held November 29, 2013 at the London School of Economics, attended by academics and policymakers from throughout the MENA region, Europe, and North America, who shared their research findings and ideas. While the international attention to the topic was extremely exciting, the event raised deeper questions.

The workshop ended with implicit praising of Morocco and Jordan, which have embarked on export employment for women, in spite of ample evidence that such employment is exploitative and hardly worth viewing as a real alternative. The question now is how can we create employment opportunities for women without subjecting them to low-paid, export-oriented labor? This question lingers in my mind and perhaps in the minds of others. I hope that policymakers devote more efforts, energy, and creative thinking to find employment options for millions of unemployed women, but not as cheap labor for the global market. There must be a better solution that is worth fighting for. The burning need to end economic apartheid must remain alive and fuel our research.

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